Oct 28 2017| Leadership | Values

Fail Your Way to Success

How trauma can help us grow

by Phil Eyre Founder

‘Times of stress are also times that are signals for growth. If we use adversity properly, we can grow through times of adversity.’ Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski.

 How do you react when you have made a mistake or when circumstances apparently conspire against you to frustrate your plans?

 When we are in the middle of pressure, error or perhaps even catastrophe, it is rarely clear that the experience can be welcomed as a wonderful opportunity for growth. However, this is the consistent message from a growing body of research into the effects of adversity.

 Bereavement, illness, natural disaster, crime and financial loss have all been observed as catalysts for significant personal growth for many people.

 The Growth Initiative, established explicitly to research post traumatic growth, identifies the following areas of growth:

  • Improved relations with others
  • Identification of new possibilities for one’s life
  • Increased personal strength
  • Spiritual change
  • Enhanced appreciation of life

In our work at Leaders, these are character qualities that are closely associated with excellence in leadership.

However, growth out of adversity is not true for all people. For some, trauma, failure or struggle can result in crushed creativity, deteriorating decisiveness, unhappiness and long- term illness.

The difference can be summarised as mindset but, if we can interpret the situation positively, we have a far greater chance of growing as a result of the adversity.

The idea that stress can be good for us (in short doses) is posed by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. Her TED talk, ‘How to make stress your friend’ is one of the most watched, with almost 14 million views. She outlines how short doses of stress are essential not only for our growth but for our physical health, too.

How can we learn to approach adversity as an opportunity to grow? In our own work with leaders and leadership teams, we have learned five high-impact techniques.


1)    Identify and Hold Fast to Core Values

Ensuring that personal values are clearly articulated is a critical factor in using adversity as an opportunity for growth.

Define Your ‘Normal’

Successful leaders value the actions and attitudes that define ‘normal’ life and working conditions. Understanding what integrity means; acceptable actions, behaviours and attitudes, alongside what is not acceptable, ensures that a person is not compromised at their core.

These values provide a set of actions and attitudes that act like guiding lights during difficult periods.

In times of adversity, true leaders can resist the temptation to break their promises; arrive late, over-charge or fiddle the data. In resisting compromise, leaders with clear values evade further struggle and affirm what really matters to them.

What are Your Personal Values?

This is why we stress the importance of understanding personal values. It’s reflected in headline words like integrity, family values, compassion and respect but also actions, attitudes and behaviours that reflect these values.

Tools like values charters that explicitly express ‘this IS how I do things / this is NOT how I do things’ are helpful. 

Many companies produce a set of values that are meaningful but do not explicitly identify the behaviours, words, actions and attitudes that are relevant to their unique business. Without this understanding, it is much easier to compromise in times of stress.

One of our clients described it like this: ‘Despite the pressure, there are simply red-lines that I will not cross. I will not treat my colleagues unfairly.’

In order to grow, it’s crucial to identify and hold fast to core personal values. 


2) Focus on What Can be Controlled

Leaders that grow through adversity constantly focus on things that can be influenced and refuse to get side-tracked by things that cannot be controlled. 

What Can You Influence?

During my career as an investment manager, I observed that the best fund managers remained calm (at least on the surface!) regardless of stock market gyrations.

Bubble conditions or crash conditions were outside of their control. They focussed instead on what they could control or influence; their particular portfolio of investments, their shareholders and their own business.

Learning to avoid the propensity to stress and speculate and remain composed helped us to achieve top quartile results for our clients.

Accept the Struggle

In the midst of turmoil, it is easy to get drawn into things that cannot be controlled. The key is not to deny the struggle, but recognise that certain factors are outside our scope of influence.

If a volcano is erupting, there’s little that anyone can do to stop that but we can focus on evacuating (quickly!) and re-settling somewhere safer. 

Brexit, exchange rates fluctuations, changes at the top of the business, supplier or customer failure are all beyond the parameters of our control. However, we can respond actively and positively to survive the immediate impact and grow stronger.

Leaders that grow during the tough times intentionally focus on what is within their control.


3) There are Three Options, Not Two.

When adversity strikes, most people identify two outcomes; disaster or getting back to normal.

There is in fact a third option; ‘better than I was before’.

Grow Through the Struggle

One of my personal heroes, Amy Cuddy,  author of Presence, social psychologist and Harvard Business School Associate Professor, epitomises this for me.

Amy suffered a traumatic head injury as a result of a car accident and describes how she ‘woke up a different person’. Her IQ had dropped by 30 points and doctors advised that her college ambitions were over. 

Despite some considerable struggles, Amy chose to work towards an even better future rather than narrow frame her options.

Over many years, she has stretched to ‘even better’, and is now a global influencer, author and Associate Professor at one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions.

Leaders that grow through struggle keep this third option in focus.

Look at the Long-Term

It is entirely natural that response to trauma needs to focus on what is immediate; working on significantly changed circumstances, avoiding further problems, working out near-term solutions. People that experience adversarial growth re-imagine a longer term and better future.

Trauma increases risk and creates greater uncertainty but the decision to imagine better, seek a recovery to normal and then surpass it is an important growth factor.

When trouble hits, what can you do to keep a third ‘emerge even stronger’ outcome in mind?


4) People That Grow Through Adversity Set Realistic Short Term Goals.

Whilst imagining a third, ‘stronger’, option be realistic about what can be achieved and by when. 

Take Small Steps

Taking small, consistent steps in the right direction with is a more successful strategy than leaping back into action overnight. Overestimating what is possible and achievable might produce a (very) short burst of energy but will sabotage long-term success.

In our work, we utilise the Quality of Motivation Questionnaire to help our clients to identify the potential for recklessness. When this trait is high, the leader believes that they can take the stress and trouble like a superhero - fearlessly and without caution.  

When trouble hits, this counterproductive trait goes into overdrive. For example, people who think they only need five hours sleep per night choose to sleep even less and work even more. This further impairs their decision-making skills and increases their anger levels.

Allocate your resources

To overcome recklessness, leaders that grow through adversity balance fast-paced decisions with pauses. By taking more of an overview they allocate resources to urgent tasks without spreading themselves too thinly. 

This takes courage. When trouble hits, it’s tempting to hold on to problematic parts of the business.  Successful leaders are realistic about what they can juggle and choose to focus on a more productive daily step forward.

To grow out of adversity, take good advice and be realistic about what can be achieved and by when, rather than trying to fight on multiple fronts.


5) Make Space to Think.

The ‘fight or flight’ survival instinct forms a significant part of our development.

These instinctive reflexes are less important in the modern world, especially in business context, yet we can remain too attuned to them, wanting to get busy running or busy fighting.

Take Your Time

Growth requires us to spend more time, not less, pausing to think, not just reacting instinctively.

There’s some caution here; we are not advocating a ‘freeze’ response, but the best action is a considered, decisive response.

Connect With the Outside

Some of our clients immediately book time in a quiet restaurant or cafe near to their office when trouble hits, varying from 30 minutes per day to half a day per week. Others ensure that they connect with their family at least twice during the week, providing valuable perspective and context about what is truly important.

The outside perspective can help to unlock ideas and pathways forward.

Growth from adversity requires MORE time to breathe and think rather than going with fight or flight instincts.

Trauma, problems, trouble and stress are real and all-too common. Yet these circumstances can help to catalyse us to personal and business growth.


Our expertise at Leaders is to help you to achieve just that.



About The Author | Phil Eyre

Phil is Leaders’ founder. He has an enthusiastic and inspiring style, drawing on his experience in business, academia and social sectors to help any leadership team to achieve phenomenal performance. Phil has sophisticated expertise in psychometrics and in the application of human data for individual, team and organisational success. He has trained with, and been mentored by, global leaders in this field, notably Dr Chuck Coker in the US. Phil began his career in the UK offshore finance industry in 1994, working for a wealth management company in Guernsey, Collins Stewart (CI) Limited, now Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil was head of the company's Guernsey division, with a staff of 120 and assets under management of £4.5billion before resigning from executive responsibilities in 2008. Phil has served on the boards of three charities, including BMS World Mission, a UK charity with over 80 employees and a global reach. Phil also ran the Guernsey hub of a national theology college, received accreditation as a pastor in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and served as a non-executive director for Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil is a member of the NED Forum and the Institute of Directors.

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